The announcement last week of a movie based on The Sims was greeted with understandable puzzlement by the gaming community. Games with almost no story whatsoever – like House of the Dead or Doom – haven’t quite been in contention on Oscar night.
Studio head Rod Humble curiously called The Sims “an interactive version of an old story, which is what it’s like to have infinite power and how do you deal with it. … You can imagine how easily that would translate to traditional storytelling.”
Our powers of imagination must be failing us this week. The closest we can imagine without our mind reaching dangerous levels of boggling is some Bruce Almighty-style “hilarity,” but The Sims movie is an interesting concept nonetheless. With over 85 million copies of the series sold, it’s the biggest videogame-related movie since Super Mario Bros. Will it be another disaster like BloodRayne, Dead or Alive, or Silent Hill, or another … er, hang on, there’s no way to finish that sentence, as there hasn’t been a videogame movie that’s been any kind of critical and commercial success.
Turning The Sims into a movie may be a sign of the growing power of gaming, but is more likely to do with the intellectual bankruptcy of Hollywood. Desperate for any new idea that will bring in punters, producers leap upon anything that looks like it might sell. Witness the attempt to film anything that involves armies and swords following the success of Lord of the Rings, bringing us such gems as Troy, Kingdom of Heaven and 300; or the Harry Potter-inspired children’s book trend, leading to Lemony Snicket, Stormbreaker and the critically-panned Eragon – the producer of which will, un-coincidentally, be handling The Sims.
The sad truth is most games hardly have enough story in them to make decent games, never mind entertaining movies. Stories are little more than a device in gaming, something to get the player from point A to B. And suitably enough, the stories are just a device in game-based movies too – a marketing device. Why waste effort on creating and publicizing a world or original character when you can just mangle a beloved gaming franchise, which people will only watch out of morbid curiosity, anyway?
Making games into movies rarely works well for the same reasons there are so few good movies based on sports. The first problem is we almost always know the outcome. It takes a brave movie, like Rocky, to let our hero lose in the end, and this bravery is well beyond the Anderson/Boll hacks of the licensed movie world. To create tension, you need to be able to suspend your disbelief, but no matter how much danger the director puts Lara Croft into, we all know that neither will she die, nor will the world end.
Movie execs still seem to think adapting a game is the same as adapting comic books. After all, there’s very little likelihood that Peter Parker is going to die in the next Spider-man movie, but moviegoers still enjoy it.
The problem is while readers bought Spider-man comics for decades, people didn’t buy Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive, or King of Fighters because of their plots or characters. We don’t want to sit and watch Ryu and Chun-Li beat the holy hell out of each other without any input from the player.
Like a sport, we can’t help but want to be involved ourselves – whether that’s kicking the ball yourself or cheering on the action. Cinema appeals to other senses. Steven Poole, author of the excellent Trigger Happy, made the comparison that cinema “is first and foremost a ride, like a fairground rollercoaster, part of whose pleasure is exactly that you are not steering, and you cannot decide to slow down. A video game, on the other hand, is an activity.”
Poole’s analogy was more prescient than even he realized when he wrote it in 2000, as a movie based on a fairground ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, has since gone on to be one of the most successful series of the decade.
A gaming movie is never likely to have similar success, although Halo, with Peter Jackson and Alex Garland’s help, is raising hopes. But while Halo‘s plot is admittedly a cut above the usual gaming fare, it would still be swept off the editor’s desk of the lowliest sci-fi publishing house without a second thought. What makes Halo successful is the fact it’s an excellent game; but while the Master Chief is a gaming icon, a near-mute, almost-invincible superhuman is not exactly the vulnerable-but-capable-of-overcoming-a-challenge character that tends to make movies interesting.
And ultimately, who are these movies aimed at? Halo 2 was one of the best-selling games of the last cycle, with 9 million copies sold – an impressive number, until it’s stacked next to the 28 million DVD copies of Finding Nemo. Given that, at best, you might get half of the people who bought Halo 2 to watch the movie, they’re not going to pay for a blockbuster – which puts the directors in the almost-impossible task of treading the line between staying faithful to the source material and making it entertaining for people who’ve never heard of it before.
Almost every director has fallen at that hurdle. Still, most gamers could live with the bad movie conversions. Worse is the fact it’s not just movie makers who are afflicted by the curse of making games and movies like one another.
Game developers are obsessed with putting movie-shaped pegs in game-shaped holes, but much as movie makers don’t understand what makes games interesting, too many developers don’t understand why movie elements don’t work in games.
Take, for instance, Super Paper Mario – a game of many good ideas, and more never-ending, un-skip-able cut-scenes. Paper Mario suffers from the same problems as the Tomb Raider movie does – inability to suspend disbelief. No matter how many times you tell me about the end of the world or the 1,500-year-old prophecy, there is simply no way I can suspend my disbelief long enough to make the story interesting. I really don’t believe that Peach is going to die Aeris-style, so don’t waste my time trying to create a story of similar depth. While every game needs some hook to base its story around, 10 minutes of cut-scenes just aren’t amusing enough to work.
Cut-scenes force the gamer to sit still and watch, when what we want to do is play. A good game should make you want to play it – even when you aren’t. Therefore, being unable to play a game even when you’re actually playing it is immensely frustrating.
The root cause is the same – games are something we want to play, not to watch. And for that reason, whether in the cinema or the living room, games and movies are probably best off kept as far away from each other as possible. Games are there to be played. Just let us play them.